Although he doesn’t personally screen out the bad guys, the TSA’s Richard Whitford makes sure those who do aren’t distracted by HR.
When Richard A. Whitford joined the Transportation Security Administration’s HR department in 2003, he didn’t realize he was signing up for a tour at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That’s because HR processes were in a state of disaster, and he would be knee-deep in its clean-up.
Created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to federalize security at the nation’s 450 airports, the TSA needed to scale up rapidly, hiring more than 60,000 employees in its first year, most of them transportation security officers (TSOs). To do that, the TSA had to move beyond the typical government model of outsourcing one or two functions to comprehensive outsourcing, with almost every aspect of HR handled by contractors. But what Whitford discovered shortly after arriving at the agency was that while the hires had been made, there were plenty of snafus in the system—in part because several providers were handling the Arlington, VA-based organization’s HR needs, creating problems with coordination.
“When you’re hiring 5,000 people a week, as we were doing in 2002, lots of shortcuts get taken,” noted Whitford, the assistant administrator for human capital. “I had to make sure people kept getting paid. I had to make sure they were all issued health benefits cards. It’s a past we had to dig our way out of. It was a great challenge to have over 24,000 (employees) who never got their medical cards.”
Today the veteran public-sector manager, 63, takes pride in the fact that the TSA has a comprehensive full-service HR program through one end-to-end HRO provider: Lockheed Martin. The agency signed a $1.2 billion, eight-year contract in July in the largest HRO deal announced in 2008. Under the deal, Lockheed Martin, which won the accord over incumbent provider Accenture, is providing a fully integrated human resources solution to support the recruiting, assessing, hiring, paying, and promoting of all TSA employees. It is also deploying an advanced HR system as well as providing the people and processes to manage TSA’s HR services. Whitford said the new contract elevates the agency’s ability to service its employees.
“I think the legacy we have is we have now been able to make the outsourcing approach pay off for us, and we’ve even reached the stage where we’ve moved on with many, many innovations,” he said. “We have flexibility in our organization, and we have put out quite a few initiatives that others do not have.”
Some key initiatives include giving part-timers health benefits at a level that matches those of full-timers—“a considerable change in policy for government that has helped us stem losses”—and creating performance bonuses and a career-progression program to retain the TSOs who form the bulk of the agency’s workforce. The agency also has arranged for its TSOs to study for an associate’s homeland security degree in order to advance.
“We judge our success by the fact that we can keep people in the job,” Whitford said. “We’re paying them a good salary and bonuses, and we have training initiatives.”
As anyone with experience in the public sector knows, policy change is not an overnight goal. But for Whitford, a lifelong public servant, achieving improvements for the common good is what keeps him in the sector. The Maryland native’s longstanding commitment to developing talent is evident in his first career choice: teaching. After attending Loyola College in Baltimore, where he majored in political science, he headed to Brown University in Providence, RI for a master’s degree in the same field. Then it was back to Baltimore to work on a Ph.D. in government at Johns Hopkins University.
He didn’t complete the Ph.D., deciding instead it was time “to do real-life work” that makes a difference in people’s lives—a goal that continues to motivate him today.
For nine years he taught economics and government history in Baltimore County high schools, gaining skills he’d leverage later on. “You get some of those interesting questions tossed at you from high schoolers,” he said, with a laugh.
Theory to Reality
Eventually, he decided “to move from theory to reality.” He landed a job as a training and education specialist at the Census Bureau, moving on after two years to HR at the Navy. He spent 15 years there in various positions, including deputy chief of staff in charge of developing a strategic HR plan for naval shipyards. The Navy proved an excellent training ground. There he worked in every functional area of personnel—classification of jobs, recruitment and hiring, benefits, labor relations, and employee relations.
“In that whole area, you come to realize that if you want to get anything accomplished, you’re going to get it done through people,” Whitford reflected. “Plus, my own experience getting hired in the federal government [he heard back from the government only three years after sending a resume] left me wanting to improve a really awful human resources system. The federal hiring system was even worse than it is today, and it still takes too long to get people on board.”
Then came an opportunity to take his expertise to the next level at the Office of Personnel Management, which, he said, under the Clinton administration turned into a government business that sold OPM services to federal agencies. He and staffers helped develop position descriptions for agencies, advertised their jobs, evaluated their applicants, and did all the other tasks and transactions typically performed by a personnel office. The job board they developed, USAJOBS, grew from 1 million hits a month when they started in 1991 to about 16 million when Whitford left in 2002. The office’s annual revenues reached more than $80 million.
“Most people don’t enter the federal government thinking they’re going to be running a business,” Whitford remarked. “It was great insight for me to have to run a business. You have to generate enough business or people won’t get paid.”
In 2002, he discovered—in all places—on USAJOBS that the TSA was looking for a head of HR, which stated it would derive most of its services from HRO. “I thought this was too great to be true. It changed direction for me once again.”
He was drawn to the fast pace—“It’s quicker than most federal agencies,” he said—and the purpose of the organization. “You can’t get anything more purposeful than the mission of the TSA, the protection of commercial aviation travelers.”
Plus, there was the focus on people in the form of the TSA’s “huge workforce doing front-line work”—a focus he helps maintain today through mentoring both senior level and new executives at the agency.
When he first arrived, the agency’s mandate was to develop a first-class human-resources system under provider Accenture and others to keep the workforce well serviced so they could focus on their mission of protecting the public. Whitford said he quickly realized having one provider to manage was much simpler than managing a cadre of them.
There were other lessons as well, including the need to strengthen information sharing between TSA’s headquarters and its field operations. The agency now also makes a point of “treating our contractors not as adversaries but as partners across the table,” Whitford said. “We have lots of coordination within the organization, and we are really letting smart people vet policies before they take effect.”
When the agency decided to change providers from Accenture to Lockheed Martin this year, it did so based on “the innovation we saw in their response,” Whitford said, citing the new vendor‘s approach to workforce planning, position management, and classification for changing providers. The company’s bid also offered the agency significant cost savings and ways to “incentivize continuous improvement, because that saves money in the long run.”
But like many practitioners, the TSA through its Office of Human Capital remains vigilant in its governance efforts. “There’s ongoing evaluation of what’s being produced,” Whitford said. “We don’t just turn over the keys to the car; in fact, we are with them every step of the way. We have a quality-assurance staff, and they have a quality-assurance plan, and we meet with them multiple times a week to make sure it’s being followed.”
The Office of Human Capital also makes a point of reaching out to field workers to ensure HR services are being delivered to their satisfaction—all a part of the governance process.
While other federal agencies have experimented with outsourcing, none have done so to the same degree as the TSA. Even by commercial market standards, its deal with Lockheed Martin is considered massive. And its experience in a way has blazed a trail for others to follow. As a trendsetter, the TSA is also helping to knock down government’s view of outsourcing, helping other bureaucrats to take a fresh look at the practice. “We have had other federal agencies express a lot of interest in how we do business and say they’d like to piggyback on what we do,” Whitford said, cautioning that each organization must assess whether comprehensive HRO is the right solution.
Still, he sees outsourcing bringing about “a sea change” in the way the federal government trains its HR staffers and structures its agencies.
“Before it was more transactional, and now we’re seeing much more project management by the federal people in much smaller offices,” he said. “And we’re also seeing how we’re training people in communications skills and how to look at results from all surveys and ways you can build a more skilled workforce. People are needed who can work at a different level than they have heretofore. We are trying to build not just skills but talent.”